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It's Time to Give Yourself a Break: 4 Unexpected U.S. Southern Coastal Retreats That Won't Break the Bank

Damn the high gas prices -- full steam ahead to some serious summer indulgence.
 
 
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If you're ready to shake off those work shackles and switch into relaxation gear, there are a few overlooked spots along the southern coasts awaiting your discovery. I grew up in North Carolina, and I've had a lifetime to search for getaways that meet my criteria of beauteousness and off-the-beaten-path allure.

We're going to be passing by all things neon and tacky and heading off to the quiet, low-key, undiscovered places where, if I could magically snap my fingers, I would be folded into a hammock with a dog-eared novel and a red-eye (that's light beer and tomato juice for the uninitiated). Damn the high gas prices -- full steam ahead to some serious summer indulgence.

1. Pawley’s Island, South Carolina

Just a half-hour down the highway from the honky-tonk hedonism of Myrtle Beach is a quiet, laid-back paradise where seekers of tranquil beaches and cool summer winds have been coming for three centuries. You will find nary a high-rise hotel. What you will find is the Sea View Inn, a rustic, old-school delight of a summer retreat with the Atlantic Ocean as your front yard. This is anything but your typical hotel experience, and if fancy frills are your thing, the Sea View is not for you. Think of it as summer-camp-at-the-shore, where down-home low-country meals --think fresh biscuits, grits and scrumptious local catch -- are served three times a day, air conditioning is the ocean breeze, and the use of laptops and cell phones is restricted to certain out-of-view areas (the WiFi works just fine, if you must have it).

The day’s activities consist of sitting on the pearly sand beneath an umbrella, strolling past weather-cured historic homes, and watching the sun put on a show-stopping display each evening as it sinks beneath the horizon. There’s a communal vibe among guests which is inviting without being oppressive. (I have stayed at Sea View both solo and with a friend, and have always found my quiet time respected and my desire to chat up fellow guests indulged.)

If you can tear yourself away from the beach, nearby Brookgreen Garden features an extensive outdoor sculpture collection and wildlife enclosures where you can meet owls, herons, otters, and other local beasts. Bonus: the area is known for the Gullah or Geechee culture associated with descendants of former coastal slaves, complete with its own creole language and fascinating traditions and foodways. If you want to take a short roadtrip, head to Charleston, an open-air museum of a city that boasts some of the finest walks and best-preserved historic homes in the country. To sample some of America's top regional cuisine, stop at the Hominy Grill for addictive shrimp-and-grits and buttermilk pie, or the fancier Peninsula Grill for fine wine paired with mouth-watering local specialties (the chefs here can make black-eyed peas taste like ambrosia).

One thing that often surprises visitors to the area’s preserved plantations is that it’s not all about the Civil War. At Middleton Place, near Charleston, you can behold the stupefying wealth of the southern signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Arthur Middleton, who had his garden designed by the very man who designed the pleasure gardens at Versailles. 'Nuff said.

2. Manteo, North Carolina

The ancient seafaring village of Manteo, whose history dates back to Elizabethan times, encircles Shallowbag Bay on the eastern side of Roanoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks. I used to come here as a kid to watch The Lost Colony, the oldest continuously running outdoor drama in the country—written by a New Deal playwright and performed in a New Deal theater (thanks, FDR!). The play chronicles the mysterious English settlement that disappeared from Roanoke Island in the late 16th century. Manteo loves its rich history, which you can see reenacted at Roanoke Island Festival Park on the Elizabeth II, a replica of a 16th-century ship sailed by Sir Walter Raleigh to the New World. Costumed actors actually speak in Elizabethan English.

Among its many attractions, Manteo has a fantastic independent bookstore, Manteo Booksellers, where you can pick up your vacation read. If you want to explore the waterways, Carolina Outdoors/Kitty Hawk Kites will hook you up with a kayaking adventure in the bay, or for the more adventurous, an excursion on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where you may spy the eponymous reptiles sunning themselves on the bank. You can also set up a hang-gliding experience at nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park. I've done it, and while you won't go far your first time up, just getting airborne without a motor is a thrill. A short jaunt over the causeway will take you to eye-popping beaches stretching along 72 miles of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

 
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